From a very early date Birmingham had been the centre of metal-working industries, and both Leland and Camden mention the smiths as being the most important and most interesting of the town's activities. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the smiths were content with the amount of trade that came to them, and they made no effort to look for work or to sell their products, for merchants came to Birmingham " with money in their saddle bags, took away the goods in exchange, or saw them packed ready for the next wagon before they left.''1
Birmingham was not a chartered town, owing to its comparatively late start in the race of industrial progress, thus its development was entirely unfettered by craft companies ;2 and comfortable fortunes had been already amassed before the time of the Restoration, when a further impetus was given to the prosperity of the town by the influx of many dissenters. At least twelve nonconformist divines, in many cases with their adherents, came to Birmingham when the Clarendon Code closed the corporate towns to them in 1661.3 Thus the qualities of thrift and industry which the nonconformists inculcated enabled them to accumulate savings which they devoted to building up large businesses on the solid foundations laid by the early metal workers.
In fact, from 1600 onwards the progress of Birmingham was remarkably rapid, " no trade unions, no trade gilds, no companies existed, and every man was free to come and go, to found or to follow or to leave a trade, just as he chose."4 In the new industries and new towns laissez-faire was an economic truth long before it was accepted as orthodox economic theory.
During the Civil War the town was for the Parliament, and when Prince Rupert attacked it, its industries were already so strong that the swordworks of a Mr. Porter furnished the Parliamentary army with 15,000 blades ;5 while in 1690 Birmingham goods compared favourably as regards quality and price with the best artistic productions of Milan.6 At the end of the seventeenth century various new trades had been introduced into the town and buckles had become a very important article of manufacture. The proximity of the town to the growing coal and iron mines of Staffordshire, and its central position, aided the rapid extension of the hardware trades that were already localized round Birmingham. The Jacobite rebellion of 1745 gave a great stimulus to the Birmingham trade in guns, and this time the sword makers were less scrupulous than in the Civil War, and executed large orders for the Pretender's troops. That is the keynote of the century: economic motives are becoming more and more important, and those that, for want of better nomenclature, are called personal and political, have less and less power over the conduct of individuals and the policy of states.
Buckles were an important article of manufacture as long as they were fashionable, and even when they were going out of fashion efforts were made, and for a time with some success, to retain them as part of the clothing of an elegant gentleman. Even fashion, previously unfettered, was coming under the dominion of economic power. The beaux at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth were the last of the old order and the beginning of the new. Their leaders were eccentrics and innovators, and the general crowd were ruled by what the tailors told them was fashionable.
However, buckles were a staple production of Birmingham. First made at Bilston, with the rise of the buckle to fashion, Birmingham supplied the whole demand for America, Holland, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain.7
The button was the enemy of the buckle, and a change in fashion and method of fastening took place about 1775. The earliest known maker of buttons in Birmingham was one Baddeley, who invented the oval chuck, and he was followed by John Taylor, who was originally a cabinet-maker, and who became High Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1756. He introduced a number of improvements in gilt, plated, and lacquered buttons; the value of the weekly produce of buttons alone at his works was at one time estimated at not less than £800.8
The Birmingham smiths worked in all the metals. Brass work had been introduced into England in 1649 by two Germans, but after sinking £6,000 in their works at Esher and working them for thirtyfour years, they were compelled to give them up " to their own ruin, and to the prejudice of the kingdom in losing so beneficial an art, having here, i.e. in England, the best copper and calamine in Europe."9
Birmingham obtained its copper largely from Bristol, where a works had been established by an ancestor of the Darbys of Coalbrookdale. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Birmingham was working in silver as well. Thus, when at the end of the seventeenth century John Boulton, of Lichfield, fell upon evil days he sent his son, Matthew, to Birmingham, where he " became a silver stamper and piecer."10 This son was Matthew Boulton, the elder, and his success in business was rapid. Matthew's son, also called Matthew, was born in 1728, and by the time he was seventeen was already a power in the firm, for he had invented the inlaid steel buckles which were soon to become so fashionable. These buckles were actually sent to France in large quantities, to be re-imported into England, as the latest French productions.
The younger Boulton soon became a partner and took almost complete control of the works. The business continued to prosper and Boulton set himself to raise the standard of his productions as high as possible :11 an aim which had a beneficial effect on the industry as a whole.
In 1750 the Birmingham hardware trades were in a flourishing condition, numbering among their products " all sorts of tools, smaller utensils and toys in iron, steel, brass, etc." and " many thousands of artisans in different branches are constantly employed."12
1 Smiles, Boulton and Watt, p. 161.
2 The Present State of Birmingham, 1789, C. U. L., p. 16.
3 British Association Handbook Birmingham, 1913, Ashley, p. 354
4 Timmins, Birmingham Hardware District, 1865, p. 211: " They (the representatives in London of the Birmingham Hardware Traders) are of no certain Company but every one chuses that he likes best and binds his lads accordingly as many other kinds of shopkeepers do." General Description of All Trades, 1747, p. 19.
5 Timmins, op. cit., p. 210,
6 " Fine works of rock crystal, swords, heads of canes, snuffboxes, and other fine works of steel" are described as seen at Milan, but with the further remark " they can be had better and cheaper at Birmingham." Timmins, op. cit., p. 210.
7 Timmins, op. cit., p. 214
8 Timmins, op. cit., p. 434
9 Ib., p. 234
10 Smiles, Boulton and Watt P. 115
11 The type of goods supplied by the Birmingham Hardware Manufacturers is shown in an order for some goods passed on by Boulton and Fothergill to John Baskerville in 1771. It includes " Plate warmers, Candlesticks, Extinguishers, Inkstands, Tea-kettles, Coffee-pots, and Bread-baskets. This order was for Japanned goods and was to be supplied to " Mrs. Mary Stovins, Toy Shop Keeper, No. 139 in Cheapside, London." R. Strauss and R. R. Dent, John Basherville-A Memoir, p. 103. Boulton himself gives the materials he is prepared to work in writing to a correspondent in Rome. He says: " I should be glad to work for all Europe in things they may have occasion for in Gold, Silver, Copper, Plated, Gilt, Pinchbeck, Steel, Platina, Tortoiseshell."Boulton to Wendler, July 10, 1767. Tew MSS.
12 A General Description of All Tries Digested in Alphabetical Order. London, 1747, p. 18,